AFPAK to APAC Hands: Lessons Learned

AFPAK to APAC Hands: Lessons Learned


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The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, recently released a memo regarding the Asia-Pacific Hands Program (APAC).  In the memo, General Dempsey states that he has directed the Joint Staff “to begin exploration of a Hands like program focused on the Asia-Pacific region.”  The memo directs services and combatant commanders “to see where and how we currently identify and educate our command-path officers, and how we expose them to regional issues.”  Cutting to the core of the matter, General Dempsey explains “[a]s we have seen over the last 10 years, the future commanders of our force will need deep regional understanding to execute their missions. . . I remain convinced that we must arm our operators at all levels with deep personal and professional regional expertise.”  The path to achieve the worthy goal of a functional and well integrated Asia-Pacific Hands Program will be challenging.  In order to mitigate some of these challenges, the Joint Staff should consider leveraging lessons learned from the existing Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands Program.

Before I continue I must admit that when it comes to the AFPAK Hands Program, I am not a fully objective observer.  I am an original Cohort 1 AFPAK Hand, and have put over four years into this program.   I am a true believer in its potential and the potential of similar programs.  Currently, I am in the last stages of my second and final AFPAK Hand tour as an embedded advisor to the Government of Afghanistan.  It is from this perspective that I offer some personal reflections, lessons learned, and suggestions to the architects of the APAC Hands Program.

In May 2010, Admiral James Stavridis wrote that the AFPAK Hands Program “reflects the notion that peace in Central Asia will not likely be achieved down the barrel of a gun, but rather through the lens of understanding.”  In that article, he described how the AFPAK Hands Program represented the President’s “shift in strategic focus.”   To support this strategic shift, the Secretary of Defense, on 24 May  2010, released a memorandum which, among other things directed the services and the Joint Staff to “Institutionalize and provide sufficient resources to the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program to develop and deploy a cadre of regionally aligned, language qualified experts who are proficient in COIN doctrine.”    The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction, 1630.01, released in Sept 2010 further explained that the AFPAK Hands Program “…in order to prepare forces for success in Afghanistan…was established to create greater continuity, focus, and persistent engagement.”  From conceptualization, the Department of Defense brought the AFPAK Hands Program to boots-on-the-ground operation in less than one year, including nearly six months of pre-deployment training.  With such a compressed timeline, the AFPAK Hands is undoubtedly a program built in-flight and as a result it has experienced and continues to experience some problems with implementation and execution.  However, I believe members of the AFPAK Hands Program and outside observers too often get stuck on these problems and fail to recognize the many successes the program has experienced and contributed to.

Though I could highlight many successful aspects of the program, I think the two that best define AFPAK Hands are our successes as bridge-builders and scouts.  In the role of bridge-builder, we use our language, cultural training, and somewhat increased freedom of maneuver (when compared to most other U.S. Government personnel) to build connections with and knowledge of the Afghan government, security forces, and society.  Concurrently, as U.S. military members ourselves, we easily liaise with our fellow Coalition members.   Using our connections to and understanding of both Afghan and Coalition organizations, we can often represent the Afghan views to the Coalition and the Coalition views to the Afghans, with the appropriate language and cultural understanding to bring the two perspectives together toward a common solution.  We facilitate the flow of information and the creation of relationships between the right people and organizations from the two sides.  I have seen Hands do some form of this for years and believe it is one of the more valuable roles we play.

Additionally, we are also scouts, not in a traditional military sense, but we make connections and develop knowledge in areas that are generally not explored by other military members but may nonetheless be crucial to situational understanding.  A few years back, a general officer related the Rumsfeldian observation that the most dangerous oversight was “what you don’t know you don’t know.”  As a Hand, I have repeatedly found myself filling in gaps of knowledge (on both sides) that nobody knew were gaps.  Most westerners who study or work with Afghans understand there are differences between Afghan and Western cultures.  However, until a person really becomes involved with Afghans, until they relax and talk to Afghans in their own language and the barriers begin coming down, the true cultural gulf—and its ability to impact the campaign—does not become fully apparent.  Our language skills, cultural understanding, historical perspective, and increased access enable us to stand with a foot in both worlds.  That vantage affords an opportunity to spot gaps, from small things like event timing, planning procedures, or protocol issues, to large items such as actual organizational structure and operation and underlying/unstated objectives and plans.  We can at times help fill in these gaps or at least serve to chart a path around them toward the accomplishment of mutually beneficial objectives.